Loophole in California's green waste policy

February 22, 2008 7:31:13 PM PST
A Bay Area lawmaker Friday introduced a bill to make sure that when you leave your yard waste at the curb, it really gets recycled.

ABC7 first reported last fall that almost half of the green waste collected for recycling in California actually winds up in the dump. Now there's a move to close the loophole that makes that possible.

People all over the Bay Area take pride in recycling, carefully separating yard waste from trash and sending it off to be composted. At least that's what most people think will happen to their yard trimmings. The reality is often very different.

"What people I think don't understand is that this is disposal in a landfill. This is not recycling of the material they put out at their curbside," says Assemblyman Jared Huffman, (D) Marin.

State figures show 47 percent of the yard waste and wood collected for recycling actually ends up at the landfill instead. So rather than becoming compost that would nourish the soil and help reduce global warming, the green waste is literally wasted.

"Once you mix that valuable resource, those organics in with the toxic material in the landfill, you've lost a whole lot," says Gordon Bennett of the Sierra Club.

California law actually encourages this. The state requires every community to recycle at least half its waste and to keep it out of the landfill. But there's a loophole. Landfills are required to cover the garbage at night to keep down the smell and keep out the animals. They can use dirt, or removable tarps or various types of debris that can't be recycled. But if they use green waste to cover the garbage, the state gives them recycling credit and counts the green waste as being diverted "away" from the landfill, even when it's really going in.

"That actually counts as recycled legally, but ethically it doesn't. It's landfill[ed]," says Bennett.

So communities get credit for recycling, even when they're not, and landfills make a tidy profit. No other state in the country does it this way. And now Marin Assemblyman Jared Huffman thinks it's time we join the club and change California's green waste policy for good.

"We need to start thinking of it as a resource that can help us with energy independence, that can help us with our global warming challenges," says Huffman.

On Friday, Huffman introduced a bill to take away the profit motive to mix green waste with garbage.

The measure would:

  • Phase out recycling credit for green waste at landfills over the next seven years.
  • Charge a state disposal fee for green waste used as landfill cover.
  • Use money from those fees to promote composting and environmentally-friendly energy production.

    "What this bill is getting at is trying to promote some higher and better uses of this material that truly would be recycling," says Huffman.

    Huffman's bill could face some tough opposition. Landfills make a lot of money on green waste and are therefore not likely to want to give it up.

    Written and produced by Jennifer Olney.